08 November 2005

Assimilation in France is alive and well: immigrant riots prove it

While many obsrervers have taken pains to describe the alienation and discrimination that has driven the poor French (immigrant) youth to their desperate acts of violence and civil unreset, their behaviour is actually evidence of something else entirely: that these immigrants have been so assimilated that they are adopting the great Gaulic tradition of manning the barricades and achieving goals through intimidation.

The swarming Parisien teen-agers on scooters with molotov cocktails have far more in common with the peasant farmers dumping produce in the streets, or electricity workers cutting power to whole neighbourhoods, than they do with Muslim radicals in the Gaza strip or Iraq.

What could be truer to the barricaded streets and bonfires of the French revolution than torched automobiles and shopping malls?

Instead of wondering at why 3rd generation African immigrants are upset, it would be a far better question to ask what it is about French society that tolerates terrorism and extortion on a grand scale? Why is that every French government (regardless of stripe) always caves in to the demands of protesters, whether it is angry pilots who want a government bail-out, or truckers who are upset about gasoline prices? Already the French politicians are falling over themselves restoring funding for suburbs, putting money into apprenticeship programs, and other largesse for the poor.

The only mystery here is why it took the teaming underclasses of the French Banilieu so long to finally take to the streets and demand their own piece of the French tax-payer.

Now there is someone who really has a reason to go on a riot...

03 November 2005

The Virtues of Discrimination

There was once a day, even in my brief life experience, when it was a compliment to call somebody a discriminating person. This was to suggest that they were astute enough to distinguish sound ideas and activities from frivolity. Unfortunately, it is increasingly becoming a criminal indictement to be considered discriminating.

Two recent articles, one on Rosa Parks and another on Greek ostracism help to illustrate that discrimination is one of the cornerstones of a moral, free society. This is as true for god-fearing societies as much as for their atheist counterparts.

In a free society where goods and services are produced privately, voluntary discrimination acts as a regulator of behaviour. It financially punishes businesses who discriminate on arbitrary racist or sexist grounds by reducing their revenues and profits, allowing them to be overtaken by their non-racist, non-sexist competitors. Only by securing government regulations and legal enforcement of irrational discrimination can the impartial hand of markets be stayed from punishing such irrational policies as racism and sexism.

The Rosa Parks article linked above illustrates this poigniantly by reminding us that the private bus owners and drivers protested and resisted the Jim Crow laws that required blacks to give up their seats because of both the injustice and the marginal loss of revenue that such laws entailed. Even if some bus operators were personally racist, their desire for profit led them to oppose racist practices that would reduce their revenues and profits.

In a free market, businesses are successful proportionally to the number of customers that they can please and have every incentive to treat customers with respect, even when a customer is wrong or impolite. Maintaining a positive reputation is paramount to developing a large, loyal customer base, even if that involves some minor losses along the way. The liberal product return policies and satisfaction guarantees offered by most successful American businesses attest to this fact.

Conversely, the right to descriminate allows businesses to refuse service to those who are excessively rude and abusive. This forces such unpleasant people to either be polite and respectful or lead a lonely life of ostracism. The Rosa Parks incident demonstrates that self-interest keeps businesses from discrimating arbitrarily, but does not discourage them from refusing service to abusive customers whose presence is both unpleasant and unprofitable. Businesses will only refuse service when the amount of additional revenue the refused customer might bring them is outweighed by the trouble or cost of dealing with the customer.

Private citizens should and do also discriminate. They should choose wisely which establishments they patronise and whom they associate with. This is - thankfully - still generally legal, though there is strong societal pressure to encourage such discrimination to be applied irrationally. For example, consumers are encouraged to make decisions based on the location of the product producer rather than the quality and price of the products. This is usually packaged as "Buy Scottish" or "Buy American" type campaigns that ignore quality in favour of blind patriotism. There is also often a sense of guilt brought upon the successful to "give back" to the poor, suggesting that they took something from them in the first place or contributed to their miserable condition when neither may be the case.

For discrimination to function properly, two things need to change. Firstly, it has to be perfectly legal for all private businesses and individuals to discriminate on whatever grounds they see fit. Secondly, it is vital to minimize the presence of the state in the economy. The state does not have the same right to discriminate as long as it is funded involuntarily by taxpayers. Because they have paid for the services of the state via their taxes, all tax-payers conceivably have some right to expect access to all state-provided services.

A resounding re-instatement of the right of private individuals and industry to discriminate will cause a renaissance of good-manners and morality, not the opposite. It is no coincidence that the times when it was a complement to be discriminating corresponded to times when people feared less and respected one another more. Let us all be more rationally discriminating.

Microsft: a culture of detail

It's taken me a while (5 years, in fact), but I am finally starting to understand the culture at Microsoft, and how to fit it a little bit. It has been quite an uphill climb for me. I have been used to being the wunderkind at every other place I've worked, but here I was just another face in a crowd of tens of thousands. It has been frustrating, and humbling, to realize that my ability to effect change is so limited, and having to re-discover ways to get my voice heard.

And what have I learned?
  1. Microsoft is a detail oriented place
    There is a high premium placed on micromanagers, and people who know EVERYTHING.

    This has been perhaps the most difficult problem for me to grapple with. By nature I am a broad-brush person who ignores details in favour of the "big picture". At Microsoft, however, this is deadly to your career since no one will trust your recommendations, or judgement, if you can't answer all their questions at the ritual grilling.

    I have a tendency to make decisions based on gut feel, and my over-all impression of customer needs, and market. But this kind of instinctual activity does not go down well at Microsoft.

    Not that this leads to better decision making. I have seen us make plenty of lousy technical and business decisions, despite (or maybe because of) this detailed fanatacism.

    I have heard many a tale of instances where top executives ripped into someone on minute issues that had come up years before. These stories are told with a sense of awe, and admiration, that our great company leaders have such a grasp of detail. Such stories, however, make me wonder if we aren't somehow too obsessed with minutiae.

  2. It's all in the family
    Relationships mean a great deal at Microsoft, and there is a strong preference for old-timers who have built a history of trust. It is a cadre of old-timers who really make this company tick, which have built a web of relationships, and trust, that the company falls back on again and again. I would even say that there is an inverse relationship to the level at which one is hired into the company and the success of their career. It is far easier to start as a new staffer, out of college, and work your way up rather than come in mid-career with a lot of experience acquired elsewhere.
The good news is that things are finally looking up for me at Microsoft, and this past year has been the first time I've felt like I was really starting to make an impact. The biggest advantage is that I am now starting to gain a wee bit of trust. I may make decisions from the gut, but now a few people are starting to see that these ideas often have some merit to them.

To be sure, I don't regret for a minute my decision to work at Microsoft. It has been tough, but I've learned a lot (about myself and others). Yes there are lots of things to complain about at Microsoft, but there are lots of great things too. I'll have to write about some of these things in future posts.